City ethics committee hears first complaint regarding Houck’s social media post
The city put its ethics committee to the test this week with the first complaint that was referred to the three-person board.
In January, Jeni Dodd lodged a complaint against City Commissioner Tracy Houck for her post promoting a local women’s march on Houck’s commission Facebook page.
Dodd verbally made her complaint during the Jan. 15 commission meeting and then hand-delivered a written complaint to Sara Sexe, the city attorney.
Because the complaint was against the city manager’s immediate supervisor, staff referred the complaint to the ethics committee for evaluation and determination.
The city hired Jordan Crosby of Ugrin Alexander Zadick, P.C. to represent and advise the Ethics Committee during the hearing.
Dodd wrote in her complaint that Houck’s Facebook post about the January women’s march was a violation of state law regarding rules of conduct for public officers and public employees. She also alleged the post was a violation of city code.
Dodd wrote that Houck violated MCA 2-2-121 (3) (a), which states:
“Except as provided in subsection (3)(b), a public officer or public employee may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue unless the use is:
(i) authorized by law; or
(ii) properly incidental to another activity required or authorized by law, such as the function of an elected public officer, the officer’s staff, or the legislative staff in the normal course of duties.”
Dodd also alleged that Houck violated MCA 2-2-121 (6), which states:
“A public officer or public employee may not engage in any activity, including lobbying, as defined in 5-7-102, on behalf of an organization, other than an organization or association of local government officials, of which the public officer or public employee is a member while performing the public officer’s or public employee’s job duties. The provisions of this subsection do not prohibit a public officer or public employee from performing charitable fundraising activities if approved by the public officer’s or public employee’s supervisor or authorized by law.”
Dodd’s complaint centered on the argument that Houck used her commission Facebook page to promote a political event or group.
“The Women’s March is a political action committee/political organization. It also is actively engaged in opposing candidates that doesn’t support its platform. Therefore, Houck’s use of her official city commissioner Facebook page to support the Women’s March is a violation of the MCA,” Dodd wrote in her complaint.
During the Feb. 6 hearing, Dodd said, “I don’t have an issue with posting public events of neutral and philanthropic nature,” but feels that the march is political.
Dodd further argued that there appears to be a clear political bias on the types of posts on Houck’s commission page.
Dodd said the march was a political event listed on the national Women’s March website as an affiliate event and the national organizers were accused of anti-Semitism.
City Commissioners have drafted and read proclamations condemning anti-Semitism over the last few years, Dodd pointed out. In November, the commission read a proclamation in support of Pittsburgh after a mosque shooting there. The commissioner also sent a letter of support to Charlottesville officials after the Aug. 12 protests that turned violent.
During the Jan. 15 commission meeting when Dodd made her initial verbal complaint, Houck addressed the complaint at the end of the meeting and said she had little to do with the event other than serving as the emcee. Houck also served as emcee last year.
During the Feb. 6 hearing, Dodd presented screenshots of Facebook posts where Houck wrote she was hosting a march planning meeting at her house.
Dodd accused Houck of lying during the commission meeting, an issue she asked the committee to consider.
Later in the hearing, Houck said she stood by her original statement that she wasn’t involved in the planning and was only the emcee.
She said she offered to host the meeting because of her schedule so she wouldn’t have to leave the house to attend the meeting. But others planned the event, she said.
Also during her comments, Houck said that “we did not” list the march on the national page though “we discussed it at the planning meeting.”
Staff indicated Dodd would need to file a separate complaint to address the allegation of lying.
“I am all for free speech,” Dodd said during the hearing.
Dodd said she didn’t have a problem with Houck posting on her personal page but didn’t believe political related posts belonged on her commissioner page.
“It gives the appearance of a commissioner taking a stance on political issues,” Dodd said.
Carl Rostad, a retired assistant U.S. attorney, asked staff if “political” was defined in state law. Crosby said it wasn’t defined in the section referred to in the complaint, but it was defined in the section on elections regarding political committees or organizations.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Houck spoke in her own defense.
“I post all kinds of things,” Houck said. “I’m here to promote our community.”
Houck said she uses her commission page for transparency, to show when she’s involved in various events or groups.
She said the local march was organized by locals and was not affiliated with the national organization.
Houck said the group decided on the topics they wanted her to speak about as the emcee. Those topics, she said, included Medicaid, womens health needs, equal pay and missing/murdered indigenous woman, among others.
She said that during the event, they spoke about solidarity and that it was not meant to be political action.
Committee member Katrina Stark moved that the committee find there was an appearance of a violation.
Rostad said the march wasn’t political based on how he interpreted state statute and was hesitant to broaden its applicability.
He said that commissioners may want to share information about various events, left or right, because they think the community should know it’s going on.
Though he said he didn’t know that it was prudent to use a city site for that.
“It probably didn’t belong there,” he said, but said he wasn’t sure he’d go so far as to say it was improper.
Stark said the march wasn’t a city sanctioned event and created an appearance of impropriety.
“I would argue that perception is nine-tenths of the law,” she said.
Roberts said the timing of the local event made it difficult for the public to distinguish it from the national events.
“The appearance is there,” Roberts said. “Ther is at least a perception that it crossed a line of political speech.”
The committee voted 2-1 with Rostad diseenting that Houck’s post created the appearance of an ethical violation,
The committee voted though to find there was no actual violation of state law or city code.
“I’m real disappointed,” Dodd said.
Houck said her page is not a commission page but is to let the public know what she’s involved in.
She said she posts for “full transparency of what I’m doing.”
Houck said commissionsers are asked to speak at a variety of events and asked if they should decline since it might offend someone.
The Facebook page is not owned, provided, operated or maintained by the city, but when elected or appointed officials use a social media site in their official duties, they’re supposed to notify the city and the city has a software system that captures the posts to maintain a public record.
Members of city boards who create email accounts for their board business are also supposed to notify the city since those emails are subject to public records laws.
“No matter what Ms. Houck says, this says City of Great Falls commissioner right on this Facebook page,” Dodd said.
Dodd and some members of the ethics committee suggested that perhaps such Facebook pages should only be used to share city sanctioned events and information.
Commissioner Mary Moe spoke in defense of Houck’s post and said that commissioners speak at a variety of events and the committee shouldn’t fault someone for the perception of others.
Moe said she would see the issue differently if Houck was trying to sway how tax dollars are spent, but that she has not advocated for any particular ballot issue.
Moe said it would be a slippery slope to deem the post an actual ethical violation.
Rostad said that “all commissioners should excercise extrememly good judgment” in what they tie the commission name to.
He said that almost any social issue can be political.
Stark said she agreed that the post was not political but did create the appearance of a violation.
Roberts said she appreciated Houck’s attempt to be transparent and “I don’t believe that this action is a violation of Great Falls city ordinances.”
The committee will draft written findings on their decisions and those findings will be filed with the City Clerk’s office.
The hearing was the first for the ethics committee, which was created in 2017 following a series of conflict of interets issues largely involving Houck related to the city’s Community Development Block Grant allocation process.
Moe and Commissioner Owen Robinson were not on the commission when the ethics committee was created.
State law allows for the creation of a three-member ethics committee to review complaints and can refer complaints that appear to be substantiated to the county attorney.
The hearing exposed some flaws in the procedures that had been created for the committee, including that no time was established for the accused to speak though time was set aside for the complaintant to speak. The accused could speak during public comment, but Crosby recommended adjusting the process to include time specifically for the accused to speak and for the committee to question the accused if it chose to do so.
Staff are now working on updates to the process which the committee will consider during their next meeting. The committee meets as needed and their next meeting has not yet been scheduled.